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THE TELEGRAM-POWERED NEWS OUTLET WAGING GUERRILLA WAR ON RUSSIA

Anti-Putin media network February Morning has become a central player in the underground fight against the Kremlin.

WIRED

August 29, 2022

On the evening of August 20, Russian TV pundit and conspiracy theorist Darya Dugina was killed on the outskirts of Moscow when a powerful explosion ripped apart her Toyota Land Cruiser. Dugina was a vocal supporter of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the daughter of fascist philosopher and writer Alexander Dugin, nicknamed “Putin’s brain” thanks to his perceived ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin. According to Russian authorities, a remote-controlled “explosive device,” presumably installed in her car, went off at around 9 pm local time.

News of Dugina’s assassination spread like wildfire through social media, most notably on the instant messaging service Telegram, where it was shared approvingly by a vast network of Russian and Ukrainian channels. But in the hours that followed, it became clear that one channel, operated by the media outlet Utro Fevralya, or February Morning, is more than just a place to share the news. It aims to play a key role in the story.

Created by exiled former Russian MP and dissident Ilya Ponomarev, February Morning was the first to report on a group claiming responsibility for Dugina’s death. Ponomarev himself took to YouTube, where February Morning airs its shows, claiming that the perpetrators were a little-known Russian resistance group called the National Republican Army. According to Ponomarev, an all-out war against “Putinism” had just begun.

While the National Republican Army’s involvement remains unconfirmed, Ponomarev’s announcement crystallized February Morning’s role as the center of gravity of a growing guerilla movement to spark revolution in Russia. The movement’s ecosystem includes activists and saboteurs of all types, from anarchists to fascists, connected through a network of Telegram channels and a singular goal: overthrowing Vladimir Putin.

Making History

On a sun-drenched balcony overlooking a busy street in downtown Kyiv, 48-year-old Evgeni Lesnoy smokes a final cigarette before going back on the air. The seasoned journalist is one of the faces of February Morning, which he joined shortly after its creation following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of February 24. “Because of my friends and relatives who stayed in Russia, I had been closely following the events there prior to February 24,” Lesnoy says in Russian. After his outspoken condemnation of the war in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea cost him his friends and, ultimately, his job, the journalist left Russia for Ukraine in 2015 and has been living with his husband in Kyiv ever since.

“When I was told that this project existed, I figured that this is where I needed to be,” he says, gesturing towards the TV studio in the next room. “Because I understand the context of what is happening inside Russia: I was born there, and I understand how people there think.”

Ponomarev, February Morning’s founder, is the only member of the Russian Duma to have voted against the 2014 annexation of Crimea. After the vote, he became persona non grata in Putin’s Russia, so he and his family fled to Ukraine’s capital city and started a new life. “For quite a long time, I had wanted to create a media aimed at a Russian audience, and that would broadcast from Kyiv,” he tells WIRED over Signal. “I tried to raise money for what I thought would be a Russian-language Al-Jazeera for maybe a year.” The venture was unsuccessful. But when Russian tanks crossed into Ukraine, the former MP and father of two joined the Territorial Defense in Kyiv, and the project took on new urgency. “After the first couple of days, many of my friends started telling me that now might be the time to revisit the idea of a media targeting Russians.”

The living room of the 18th-century apartment in which February Morning has taken residence is home to its television studio with a semicircular stage lit with a bluish light. Two screens broadcast in the background. When presenting the day’s show, Lesnoy sits before a small table draped with a white and blue tricolor flag—the symbol of the Russian opposition to the invasion—and that of Ukraine.

Broadcast on YouTube, the professionally produced daily programs try to counter the official Russian narrative surrounding the war, reporting on the atrocities committed by the “occupiers” against the Ukrainian population. “Putin’s supporters and apologists have big media organizations and prime-time news shows,” says Lesnoy. “We want to give a voice to those who oppose the war.”

Which is what Ponomarev did on August 21, when he claimed on air that the National Republican Army assassinated Dugina—an act he described as “legitimate.” He also read the group’s purported manifesto, which called on all Russians to join the ranks of the National Republican Army and vow to destroy all those who have “usurped their power.”

February Morning’s insights into the domestic resistance movement in Russia stem from its 27 regional outlets, each with its own Telegram channel where activists and journalists mingle to gather and share news of anti-Putin actions. A binational team of around 70 journalists, technicians, and activists operates covertly in the far-flung regions of Russia and in Kyiv. In addition to its studio in Ukraine’s capital, the network brazenly broadcasts from Moscow. “I don’t know how long the studio there will be able to operate, but even if the FSB shows up at the door and shuts us down, there will be another one,” says Ponomarev.

Whereas most media outlets only report the story, February Morning intends to be part of it. “We are referring to ourselves as the Russian ‘NEXTA,’ the Belarusian resource that played a key role in the protests two years ago following the reelection of Alexander Lukashenko,” says Ponomarev, referring to Belarus’ autocratic leader. “We want to be the resource that will play a critical role in the future revolutionary changes in the country.”

To this end, Ponomarev and his team have set up a Telegram channel known as Rospartizan, which has become an aggregator for information pertaining to the resistance to Putin and the war in Ukraine as well as a key recruitment tool. Every day, Rospartizan relays the latest developments across Russia, from the torching of a military recruitment office to the unfurling of an antiwar banner in front of the Russian Ministry of Defense building in Moscow.

According to Ponomarev, representatives of the National Republican Army first made contact with him through Rospartizan, a testament to the channel’s growing notoriety. “We are providing, in my opinion, the most comprehensive news stream on what is going on in Russian regions, in terms of acts of sabotage and the actual resistance,” says Ponomarev. The National Republican Army’s manifesto concludes, “stay in contact with us through the Rospartizan Telegram channel.”

With more than 26,000 followers, Rospartizan embraces anyone who’s anti-Putin, no matter their political ideology—a feature, not a bug, according to Ponomarev, a former Communist Party member and self-described “social globalist.”

“I am right now not only reaching out, but very actively interacting with not only my friends on the left side of the political spectrum,” he says, “but also with people on the far-right, who we are usually fighting with.”

The Enemy of My Enemy

Roman Popkov, the former head of the Moscow branch of the National-Bolshevik party, falls into that far-right camp. Popkov used to be a member of the influential Russian National Unity, a now-defunct neo-Nazi group responsible for a string of racist crimes, before joining the political party founded by controversial Russian writer, poet, and dissident Eduard Limonov, who sought to unite far-left and far-right radicals on the same platform.

In 2006, after years of harassment by Russian security forces, Popkov was arrested and spent more than two years in pretrial detention in the infamous Butyrka prison. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that his detention was illegal, and his arrest is widely considered to have been motivated by his political activism.

Popkov, now residing in Ukraine, works as a journalist for a number of independent media outlets, and is the head of a recently launched media project called Poslezavtra, or “The Day After Tomorrow.” An “old friend” of Ponomarev, Popkov has featured extensively on February Morning’s shows and took part in the broadcast that followed Dugina’s assassination.

“We are covering direct actions targeting the military and the apparatus of political repression of Putin’s regime,” Popkov says over the phone. “First of all, we are trying to inspire people, to get them to act, and second, we inform and report on what is being done.”

Like Ponomarev, Popkov stresses that activists’ ideologies are not as important as a willingness to defy Putin’s regime and to oppose the war in Ukraine.

“Our collective unites people opposed to Putin’s regime, with different political views and ideologies,” says Popkov. “At the moment, it’s not that important if one is an anarchist, a

nationalist, or a liberal as, since Russia is not a democracy, we have no representation in parliament, and can’t vote for our candidates.”

According to Popkov, acts of sabotage in Russia are mostly the work of small-scale far-right and far-left groups, the most famous of those being the Anarcho-Communist Combat Organization, or BO-AK. The organization rose to prominence after it sabotaged the railway leading to a Russian military arsenal in the small town of Kirzach, 100 km east of Moscow. The group shared photos of the sabotage on their own Telegram channel, which quickly spread to other anti-Putin channels, including Rospartizan, and was soon featured on February Morning’s broadcast.

Yet even the staunch anarchists of the BO-AK acknowledge the need to reach out to the other side of the political spectrum. “Most of our contacts are from our ideological camp, but not all,” an anonymous representative of the group tells WIRED. “We believe that alliances with different forces are necessary in our struggle.”

The anarchists of the BO-AK consider direct actions and acts of sabotage as the best way to kickstart the social revolution, a view shared by many members of Rospartizan. In addition to two sabotage operations targeting military railways, the BO-AK claims to have set fire to a cell phone tower in the Belgorod region “in order to damage Putin’s army communications in Ukraine.”

“Only those who can back it with their actions can call themselves the opposition,” an anonymous contributor to Rospartizan says over Telegram, “be them a Molotov cocktail thrown at a military recruitment office, a wire strung across train tracks, or a gas canister taken to the car of a regime collaborator.”

Dangerous Cocktails

Inspired by the Belarusian resistance to Lukashenko and the protestors’ innovative use of Telegram, Popkov, Ponomarev, and activists like the anarchists of BO-AK have turned to social media to organize, recruit, and incite people to act against the war and Putin’s increasingly authoritarian regime.

“Telegram is a less censored, more intelligent, and politicized social network. A large part of our immediate target audience is present here—people who are potentially interested in radical politics,” says the BO-AK. “This is where lies the usefulness of social networks for campaigning and education—they are an excellent channel for broadcasting and communicating.”

Antiwar activists in Ukraine and in Russia have taken full advantage of the relative anonymity Telegram provides. A website known as Ostanovi Vagony, or “Stop the Wagon,” and its associated Telegram channel aim to educate Russian would-be partisans on the safest, most effective ways to sabotage the railway system. Meanwhile, a Telegram channel created in late May called Gromko (“loud” in Russian) creates sleek infographics explaining how to make a Molotov cocktail—described as the best way to disable the car of a Putin sympathizer—or how to deface the regime’s propaganda posters.

This material is regularly shared by Ponomarev’s Rospartizan, which has become a central conduit for guerrilla efforts to rally new recruits, spread information and news, and, purportedly, to facilitate the assassination of a high-profile regime collaborator. In an interview with Russian independent media Meduza, Ponomarev claimed to have known in advance that “something was going to happen” ahead of Dugina’s assassination. He further claimed that he helped the National Republican Army exfiltrate Natalya Volk, the woman whom Russian security services named as the main suspect in her death: “Sometimes people need to be saved from FSB persecution, they need to be pulled out of Russia—we pull them out.”

Telegram did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.

While unconfirmed, the number of acts of sabotage targeting military and state infrastructure in Russia appears to grow weekly. According to Russian independent media Insider, there have been more than 20 attacks on military registration and enlistment offices in Russia (which were reported by the media and Telegram channels), most of which were arson. “There were no similar incidents last year,” notes Insider journalist Alisa Zemlyanskaya, writing under a pseudonym. Meanwhile, an estimated 63 freight trains derailed in Russia between March and June, a significant increase compared to the same period last year.

Russian authorities, eager to downplay the significance of the apparent sabotage efforts, have blamed those incidents on the poor condition of the railway system. The scale of guerrilla attacks on Russian entities remains, therefore, difficult to assess.

“When it comes to railway sabotage especially, it’s difficult, or even impossible, to tell if it’s sabotage, or if it’s an accident due to a technical problem, or to the incompetence of the authorities,” says Popkov.

According to the BO-AK—whose members signed the sabotaged section of rail in Kirzach with the name of their group and the link to its Telegram channel—“that’s because many guerrilla groups do not leave any message or position themselves in the media in any way.”

“In any case, every week there are several reports of railway sabotage, the destruction of power lines, and other acts of resistance,” says the group. “This suggests that the guerrilla movement is not a mass movement, but a fairly large-scale one.”

Russian security services are quick to blame infiltrated Ukrainian saboteurs for these attacks. Regardless of who’s behind them, acts of sabotage continue unabated: On August 17, yet another freight train derailed near Mogilev, in Belarus, while last Wednesday, a man threw two Molotov cocktails at the regional administration building in Oryol, in western Russia.

Fire-bombing a car or derailing a Russian train can, of course, carry significant penalties. But even less extreme activities are dangerous, especially in light of a slew of new repressive Russian laws. In July, lawmakers updated Russia’s Criminal Code to crack down on working with “foreign states and organizations,” public activities “directed against the security of the state,” and the production and public display of “Nazi paraphernalia or symbols.” Because Putin has repeatedly claimed, baselessly, that Ukraine was run by a clique of drug addicts and Nazis and

cited “denazification” as one of the primary motivators of his invasion, this last amendment could potentially land an antiwar protestor waving a Ukrainian flag in prison.

According to Russian independent media OVD-Info, authorities in Russia detained some 16,500 people between February and July for having taken part in protests or actions against the war.

Activists and dissidents both in Russia and abroad expose themselves to retaliation from Putin’s regime—a fact that they are acutely aware of. “I’m a reasonable person, I don’t think I’m invulnerable or immortal,” Ponomarev says. “So I do understand that there are issues with security and everything. But I have done a lot of effort to protect myself and the place where I live, as well as the way I move across the city.” Those concerns have been heightened following Dugina’s assassination and Ponomarev’s subsequent declarations. On August 21, a member of the Russian government proposed a contest for the best video or photo of the dissident politician “crawling on broken legs and apologizing while spitting his teeth.”

“I’m not going to pretend that I am not scared at all,” says February Morning’s Lesnoy after his last interview of the day had ended. “But I live in Ukraine, where Putin is waging war. Everybody here is at risk.”

When asked about their motivation for joining the resistance and potentially exposing themselves to repression, an anonymous contributor to Rospartizan summed it up simply: “Let us use the platitude, ‘who else if not us?’”